In recent years published modules have changed. When I was a rookie roleplayer and dungeon master almost all modules were story-driven, modules that were a lot like the Tyranny of Dragons, where the PCs are participants in events that happen no matter what and the PCs job is to affect the outcome of these events. Lately this had changed, and many published modules are becoming better and better sandboxes, where the PCs are the main driving force behind the story, e.g. Out of the Abyss.
Running a sandbox is not an easy feat. Many dungeon masters find this intimidating and other confuse sandbox with free-forming the story telling, i.e. that the dungeon master’s main role is to be reactive to the player’s decisions, while the third group thinks that dm-ing a sandbox takes much more planning than your everyday story-driven module. These assumptions are right, of course, but still, they’re also wrong.
But what really is a sandbox?
Sandbox modules are narratives where the story is driven by the PCs decisions. While story-driven modules are linear, event-based and the characters have little control over where the story takes them, sandbox modules offer players more freedom to explore and choose their own destiny.
Yet sandbox modules are not freeform. Just like the metaphor these kind of modules derive their name from, sandbox modules are framed and contained in their own way, e.g. Curse of Strahd, Storm King’s Thunder and Out of the Abyss all offer some sort of sandbox, i.e. the characters can choose at one or many points in the narrative where to go and what to do, though while remaining contained within the boundaries of the story.
In CoS the characters can explore Barovia, though the Dark Powers make sure that they stay within that realm. In SKT the characters can investigate the North and must choose what clan of giants they want to deal with. In OotA the characters have the finite realm of the northern Underdark to trek and explore.
As a DM, you need to figure out what your sandbox’s borders are. These can be as both as tangible as impassable mountains or any other landmarks, magical borders as in Ravenloft or vague and not formal as in SKT. Your sandbox can even be focused on a single vale, e.g. the Haranshire of Night Below, or as vast as the whole North in Faerun.
Hooks and Plots
Once you’ve figured out what your sandbox is like, it’s time to think about the narrative or the overarching story. Since the sandbox relies on characters’ actions, you need a few hooks. In a story driven module it’s easy to get away with one hook, since one event leads to another and the story unfolds itself.
Having more than one hook for the overarching plot helps you introduce the characters to it and offers them a chance to choose their own entry point, so to speak. Therefor it’s good to have a clear view of the main plot and a solid reason for why the status quo is upset.
So many modules open in a tavern, inn or a bar, that it has become a cliché, where the characters hear rumours or an old man tells them a story. As good an opening that is, there are many ways to hook characters to a plot. In the Finder’s Stone trilogy, the main character wakes up, with strange tattoos on her forearms, with no memory of how they got there. In Oota, the characters start as prisoners in a drow citadel. In Dragonlance Classics, the characters start when returning home to Solace after years of separate adventuring.
In a sandbox, where the narrative is character-driven, having a few hooks prepared often makes it easier to introduce different characters to why the status quo has been upset. The rogue finds a strange stone in a purse she nicks from an old adventurer outside the Red Rooster tavern, the bard might hear a strange, mesmerising song the same night in the tavern and the town wizard might receive a letter from his old mentor. Each of these hooks point to different parts of the plot and the characters can choose what to investigate first.
Pieces of the puzzle
In a sandbox with an overarching plot, the plot should be broken down into pieces. When the characters start investigating the different hooks and rumours, they stand to gain pieces of information that can offer them a better glimpse of the plot. The characters don’t necessarily need to follow every lead to understand the whole plot, but they should need to investigate more than half of them to get a grasp at why the status quo is upset, who is responsible and how they can fix it.
Not all the pieces need to fit. Of course, there can be red herrings, pieces of other puzzles and even misleading pieces, which are all parts of good narratives. You can also use the pieces to introduce the characters to NPCs, help them discover some obscure information about monsters or learn about the local history or culture. Other pieces could offer the characters a chance to follow leads related to their own background stories or involve interaction between them, e.g. if two characters are lovers or one character decides to buy or build a keep.
From local to global
As time progresses and the characters gain experience, learn more and become more powerful, they start having more and more ways to affect the world around them. Therefor their zone of influence should grow larger and hence, the sandbox becomes larger, even encompassing other planes of existence. In 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide (see page 37) you can find a good article about the different tiers of play in D&D and I highly recommend it.
As the sandbox grows, the pull of the overarching plot should also become heavier, i.e. the more powerful the PCs become the fewer pieces of puzzle are irrelevant to the plot. It goes without saying that the challenge level should also rise.
Growing the sandbox can be problematic, since it can be hard to predict what path the characters will follow and what conclusion they will draw from the leads and information that they have gathered or to predict where their mind will take them. A high-level cleric of Lathander investigating a powerful dracolich, one terrorising the Dales at the call of Cult of the Dragon, might decide to visit the House of Nature to seek counsel from the Morninglord’s angels, which would take the group across the multiverse.
Multiple options or the Illusion of choice?
In OotA there are no specific guideline to how the characters should progress through the module, they can choose their own path and how they would like to investigate the Underdark. In a sandbox, the characters always have that choice and it’s the DM’s role to make sure that the PCs are put in positions where they must make these choices. And those situations are what makes the sandbox great.
By giving the PCs breathing space between different adventures you give them time to decide on where to head next, decision based on what knowledge they have gathered so far. Whether the group regroups in some village, goes to see some mentor or just take a breather in their camp, the characters need time where they can discuss their next steps, ponder on what they have discovered or try to understand the importance of all the events of the narrative so far.
Sometimes the characters can have multiple choices, while in other times they only have the illusion of choice, i.e. one or two of their options are obviously more feasible than others. The illusion of choice can be helpful, for it’s easier to predict what choices the characters will make. But if you overuse it, your players will probably soon feel that they are on the tracks of a railroaded story-driven module. If you make sure that the characters can choose between two or more equally good (or equally bad) options, there’s little chance for that, but you will need to be more flexible and better prepared.
Don’t be afraid to say no!
A good friend of mine and a fellow Dungeon Master recently said that once he learned to say no to his players his storytelling got better. Sometimes the players ideas are simply ludicrous or so out of touch with the ongoing narrative, that you almost have an obligation to say no and ask the players kindly to stick to the narrative.
Don’t be afraid to say yes!
Sometimes the players find a great solution to some problem, solutions unforeseen by us. Yet other times, their solutions take them down paths that we would never imagined, but are so creative and brilliant that only the collective hive mind of a group of roleplayers could come up with them. Don’t be afraid to go with the flow and allow the unexpected to happen.
One of the most powerful tools in the dungeon master’s toolbox is the ability to think on their feet and add to the narrative on the spot. Many experienced DMs own a number of different tables and indexes, including tavern names, NPCs, encounters etc., something that can come handy, especially when the group is especially crafty and creative when it comes to dealing with the problems you introduce in the story.
Being able to spin can also be helpful when the characters have gone way off track. But as with the illusion of choice, you need to make sure that the players don’t feel railroaded and that the narrative is inescapable. Keep an open eye for opportunities to spin, for not only is it fun but it can also breathe even more life to the narrative’s background.
You reap what you sow
The more you’re willing to invest in your sandbox, the more interesting, lifelike and fun it will be to play in. If you’re having fun, it’s more than likely that your players will also have fun. Remember the golden rule: It’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun!